How ‘Planned Happenstance’ Can Add Luck to Your Career

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Many of us think we need a defined career plan—a strategy of sorts that puts our career on an upward trajectory, like a line graph that moves forward and up in responsibility, salary, and satisfaction, resulting in success. And we think that if we don’t have that plan, if we are uncertain about what to do or what the next best move is, we might be sunk.

Some of the most frequent comments I hear from clients, friends, and family who are feeling unsettled in their job are things like:

“I don’t know what I want. I need a plan that puts me on the right path.”

“I wish someone would tell me what job or what industry to work in so that I know what to do with my life.”

“I need clarity around my career goals and priorities. I want to map out my next 5, even 10 years.”

This is common because a natural response to job uncertainty is the belief that not having specific answers and a plan is what is keeping us from the career we want. But what if I told you that embracing the uncertainty is exactly what you should do to build your career, and that this approach could lead you to something great?

Like a former colleague of mine, Gabby (not her real name), who was ready to move on from her current role but didn’t know what her next step should be. After surfing LinkedIn, she found me. She was curious about the company I worked for at the time, and the type of work I was doing. She sent me a message explaining that and asked to meet with me to learn more. She was prepared with specific questions, and I was impressed with her curiosity. What Gabby didn’t know was that I was planning to leave my job within six months to start my own firm. We stayed in touch so I could pass her resume on when I put in my notice. You guessed it; Gabby got my job.

Without knowing it, Gabby had applied “Planned Happenstance” to her career search, and you should too. Planned Happenstance is a published career development theory—and an intentional oxymoron. Here’s how it works: You make an effort to seek out new experiences and people. You might take a class, have coffee with a friend of a friend, volunteer at an event, or reach out to someone on LinkedIn. This is the “planned” part that creates an opportunity for chance or happenstance to take place.

The mindset required during these encounters is one of learning and a willingness to be flexible to see where the experience might take you. The activities don’t have to relate to your job, and you welcome not knowing what will happen, even if it might be rejection.

For example, let’s say you sign-up for a class at a local community center but upon arrival, you learn it’s been canceled because the instructor is sick. Instead of heading home, you might ask the others who arrived if they want to get coffee. Now let’s say that the people you ask out for coffee decline the invitation. They decide to go home. You’re not dejected, rather you see this as leading to more choices: Maybe you head down the street to a bookstore to see if something is happening there or maybe you go home too and try again another night. Planned Happenstance is an openness for…well…whatever!

Here’s what Planned Happenstance isn’t: You can’t just show up at Starbucks or stand in the middle of a mall and wait for someone to come up to you. It isn’t magic. You have to take action and then let luck happen. It’s fuzzy, it’s intangible and thus, maybe unbelievable. But take stock of your own life. How many of the opportunities you’ve enjoyed resulted from some combination of action and luck? Probably more than you realize. This is a tried-and-true approach to developing, even advancing your career.

How to start putting more luck into your career

The first step is to accept the uncertainty of careers. This means feeling comfortable with not knowing what you want or where to go next. This is a common and natural place to be. Then, go out and explore new things to create unexpected opportunities. Here are a few tips and ideas:

  1. Step out of your current circle of friends and colleagues by asking them to introduce you to people you don’t know. You can use LinkedIn too, like Gabby did. Request informational interviews. You might worry you’ll be a bother but for many, it is a wonderful break from the day-to-day to discuss career aspirations with someone interested. Those you ask will likely be flattered.
  2. Buddy up. If doing this independently is too much, then bring in a friend. Identify a new activity to engage in but upon arrival, separate. This way, you have the comfort of arriving together and then you split up to create personalized opportunities.
  3. Look to your childhood. What activities did you love to do? Was it learning languages, singing in a choir, participating in 4-H, skateboarding, or something else? It doesn’t have to pertain to your current career; rather, it’s something you once enjoyed.
  4. Make it routine. Opportunity likely won’t come knocking after one try. Maybe every month, you go out to dinner with people you don’t know; you and a friend each invite one acquaintance, and that person brings someone too. This way, everyone has a connection to someone, which makes it more inviting to attend and yet, everyone is also having dinner with four people they’ve never met. Let the conversation go wherever it may.

Contrary to popular belief, careers don’t really require specific plans. Rather, they require an openness to learn, some risk-taking, and perseverance. Who knows what could be ahead? Our futures are uncertain; that’s a guarantee. Letting go of the pressure to know exactly what’s next creates the energy, space, and time to explore something new and let chance or luck take hold.

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